“Before, the industry was all about survival,” says Ensto Industrial Solutions President Fernando Trolia Slamic about the state of the solar business just five years ago. “It was a nascent industry concerned with technology and government regulations.” But that’s all history.
“Today,” says Trolia Slamic, “the fundamental economics of the solar business is comparable to those of traditional power sources like gas and oil.”
What Trolia Slamic terms “the new boom” is taking place in Latin America, Asia and the Middle East, with enormous potential for the United States, as well. “We see emerging markets doing in just three years what took about a decade to happen in Europe.” And so in today’s dynamic solar marketplace, the relevance of a company’s business model, as well as its creativity, becomes the critical factor for success.
One of the companies successfully riding this megatrend is ABB, a Switzerland-based power and automation company with annual revenues of approximately 36 billion euros. And playing an important support role for ABB is Ensto.
Honduras, Latin America’s second largest producer of solar electricity, approved 23 solar farms in 2014 for a total of 609 megawatts.
Key in this mix is a 146MW solar project near the city of Nacaome, the biggest solar project ever in Latin America, where ABB was awarded contract for electric balance of system for a 146 MWp project. According to Ensto Key Account Manager Tomi Ojanen, the Honduras farm’s clean energy will return the investors’ money in just four years.
Overall, Ensto has supplied ABB with 1,144 Cubo E-based solar string monitoring junction boxes for the Honduras project, and in 2015 is supplying more than 2,000 to another 20 projects in 10 countries, including the Philippines, Russia, Turkey, India, the UK, and Finland.
The string monitoring junction boxes were delivered by late December 2014. They are a critical link in any solar installation, and incorporate over 100 different components manufactured or sourced. The products require adapted and dedicated manufacturing lines at Ensto factories, all working towards deadlines that demanded extreme flexibility and speed in engineering, sourcing, and manufacturing. The boxes are also nearly indestructible. “The boxes must endure UV radiation and be heavily corrosion-resistant,” says Ojanen.
Trolia Slamic says ABB has been a great partner who is very open to new ideas and creative solutions. “Conventional industry wisdom is that solar array junction boxes must be metallic. But when you consider the extreme operating conditions, such as UV radiation, humidity, heat, and day-night temperate fluctuations, you find out that it doesn’t have to be that way, and that other ‘unusual’ materials can achieve even better performance.”
Ensto’s high-spec plastics are half the weight of metal and extremely flexible for customization, which translates into lower costs of installation and maintenance, and thus higher flexibility and reliability for ABB and the operator of the solar plant. “We’re now seeing about 30 to 40 percent of ABB’s orders to Ensto specifying plastic,” says Trolia Slamic.
Most of all, Ensto’s flexibility has served ABB well. “Ensto delivers configurations for plants between 40 and 200 MW, and those change from project to project,” says Trolia Slamic. “Every project is different."
What’s Ensto’s secret? “Our processes are tuned for this,” says Ensto Project Manager Kari Sorjonen. “Once the design is finalized with our customer, we consume a very little amount of time via optimized processes for making the products.”
Consultant Asko Rasinkoski, a Senior Technology Specialist at Soleras, says Ensto’s strength is “taking the customer seriously” and producing a solution which he terms a “standard-custom project.”
These projects have produced a fruitful relationship. “The contract is a good example of us trusting Ensto in their professionalism in providing high-quality enclosing solutions targeted at demanding environments,” says Jyrki Leppänen, Director, Market management, Solar inverters at ABB. “Ensto is deeply familiar with the solar industry segment and is able to offer technical solutions meeting our needs.”
Ensto is currently working with ABB in bidding on 50 other projects in the Far East, Middle East and Latin America, for solar plants of 15 to 200 MW of installed capacity.
And it’s not just Ensto supporting ABB. Over the past decade, ABB has been a reliable supplier to Ensto, too, with critical components for the most demanding AC and DC applications.
Ensto has over 40 years of experience in integration solutions at large scales. For the past decade, it has gained solar industry specific experience in Europe. Now that competence is being taken outside of Europe, together with key partners like ABB.
So far, Ensto’s Mikkeli factory has been the primary manufacturer of the Ensto solar array junction boxes. However, enough growth is expected that Sorjonen says there is a parallel ramping up of capabilities at Ensto’s factory in Tallinn, as well.
With the market mature, government regulation now largely irrelevant, and the big players staking their positions, Ensto has carved out its key competence: the interconnection of the whole farm.
“The cost of one kilowatt hour ten years ago was four times what it is today,” says Trolia Slamic, “making today’s cost of a kilowatt hour comparable to a gas plant. The world is now ready for a bright solar future.”